Float (Anne Carson)

Anne Carson’s Float consists of 22 chapbooks of varying lengths floating inside of a transparent slipcase. Little unites them, except perhaps the overall theme of a desire to refuse boundaries and “float” free from the constraints of convention.

Loosely, the chapbooks could be grouped as poems, plays, and essays (of course, they blur between). The poems are of middling quality. One is abysmal, doggerel rhyming in a loose alphabet-song structure: “J is for junk. / K for never liked punk.”

Carson’s prose poems, as always, are much stronger than her lined poetry, and contain some beautiful moments, especially when Carson meditates on writing itself. “Consider a person standing alone in a room. The house is silent. She is looking down at a piece of paper. Nothing else exists. All her veins go down into this paper.”

One poetic highlight is “Zeusbits,” snippets from the life of Zeus that range from comical to harrowing, offering both tones in the same lines. “Zeus’ tigers lay cold and golden amid their lawyers. / A welcome day off from the war on lichen. / Except / for the women who / scream down their knives as they clean the blood off the trees.”

Carson’s essays are more consistent, crafting startling linkages between a range of subjects, often beginning or linking back to classical Greek literature (Carson is a professor of Classics).

“Variations on the Right to Remain Silent,” considers the work of translation (some of Carson’s best work, throughout her career, are her translations). She begins by considering the French word cliché and moves to discuss Homer’s Odyssey, Joan of Arc’s trial, Francis Bacon’s painterly technique, the word purple, and German poet Hölderlin’s translations, then the poetry of Paul Celan.

To end the essay, Carson applies her own ideas to create a series of wild translations of the lyric poet Ibykos. The translations are brilliant. This is Carson at her best, making surprising intellectual leaps without being constrained by essayistic conventions that might bog down and dry up her argument.

In other essays, this informality and looseness works against her. While discussing Alberto Moravia’s novel Contempt, she delivers a quotation and then notes, “When I first read it this passage struck me as horrifying and Riccardo as a pretty weird guy.” Suddenly, the brilliant Dr. Carson sounds like a lazy undergraduate student. Perhaps on purpose? The most charitable criticism might be to take this as a bad joke that does not land.

The plays are the highlight of Float. They are odd creations, wild and dense, often borrowing from or translating other plays while combining poetry and criticism.

It’s in a play, in fact (a play that is also two connected essays/lectures) where Carson describes both her lecture style and the concept behind it:

at first you think: what a poor lecture this is — the ideas go all over the place and then later you think: but still, what a terrifically perilous activity it is, this activity of linking together all the threads of human sin that go into making what we call sense, what we call reasoning, an argument, a conversation. How light, how loose, how unprepared and unpreparable is the web of connections between any thought and any thought.

Float is ambitious and electric, despite being uneven. Carson attempts a lot, and fails often, but just as often she succeeds. She attempts much more than most writers and even her failures fascinate.

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